When Diana Nassar first applied to the University of Jordan in Amman, her passion was media. Then, she witnessed the power of networking technology to change society as the Arab Spring unfolded around Jordan. She wanted to play a part in that transformation and decided to study computer science.
“We need technology to revolutionize our lives,” she says. “I think that technology could help to create a better way of living, that is what made me decide to take it for my career.” Diana benefitted from a national effort to increase the participation of women in information and communications technology (ICT) and grow the sector.
Women are underrepresented in ICT fields globally. They are less likely to pursue technical degrees, work in technical jobs, advance in those careers, and they earn less than men. “Women with engineering degrees accept positions in data entry,” according to Mohamed Jinini, Cisco Networking Academy program manager in Jordan. “They do not advance because they stay in offices and lack field experience. Employers have a bias against hiring women because they believe they will leave after a few years.”
In 2002, as the ICT sector grew, Jordan saw an opportunity to establish itself as a hub for technology in the region. By developing a skilled workforce with equal opportunities for men and women, they expected to advance the country’s ICT industry and attract global companies and customers. To create an environment where both men and women could thrive required changing attitudes and expectations of male and female students, employers, and workers.
The government partnered with UN Women and Cisco to launch the Achieving Equality in the ICT Sector (E-Quality) program, a national initiative to empower women to pursue advanced ICT careers and to create a gender-sensitive workplace. The program brought the Cisco Networking Academy curriculum to 14 high schools and universities, including the University of Jordan. They actively recruited women with scholarships to ensure 50% enrollment and provided vouchers to encourage women to validate their skills through certification.
At first Diana and her friends were reluctant to participate. They learned theory in their other classes and the Networking Academy curriculum required hands-on practice. “As we progressed we found that the material is very well written and broadened our horizons,” she says. “It introduced us to new technology that we could use on a daily basis.” Diana gained the confidence to sit for her Cisco CCNA exam and to set up a network in her home for her parents, brothers, and sisters.
The E-Quality program brings Networking Academy curriculum and CCNA certification into existing programs where male and female participants work together toward internationally certified diplomas in technical subjects. Soft skills training prepares women to compete for jobs and succeed in the workplace. A job placement program educates public and private-sector partners about the benefits of hiring qualified women and helps graduates find jobs.
“At first companies did not give women the training and opportunities to advance because they were concerned that the women would quit,” says Mohamed. “We found that turnover was lower than it was for men. When women like working in an environment, they prefer to stay. This proved that if companies invest in females, they will stay.”
Diana graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering and a CCNA certification in 2012. Her CCNA made her CV stand out and the E-Quality job placement program connected her to Aramex, a shipping company in Jordan. The company valued her hands-on skills and she admired their corporate social responsibility efforts. “They have a huge program for the society and are very prestigious in Jordan,” she says.
After a decade of research, public advocacy, education and training, the E-Quality project ended in April 2014, but its legacy remains. More than 6500 people, 55% of them women, have participated in the E-Quality program. Jordan has become a leader in ICT, and female participation in the sector has grown from 12 to 30%. The government’s Graduate Internship Program to encourage hiring by private sector companies increased female participation from 20% in 2010 to 45% in 2011. In 2014, there were 20 active Cisco Academies in Jordan with 47% female enrollment and 25% female instructors. Globally, only 20% of academy students are women and just 14% are women in the U.S.
Diana sees many opportunities for women in technology in Jordan. Just 5 years ago, the majority of her co-workers were men. Today, half of the software developers in her department are women and women managers model a path to advancement. Many of her friends found jobs with networking companies that use Cisco technologies. “Amman is a beautiful, modern city,” she says with pride. “We are still shaping our identity and hope to be the Silicon Valley of the Middle East. Because we are emerging, we have so many openings for careers. There are opportunities here for women.”
“We succeeded,” says Mohamed. “The global trend is to focus on women’s rights as human rights. We contributed to this trend with our program to mainstream women through employment and training.”
Diana remains dedicated to the change and transformation that technology can bring to her country and to the world. “I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to go to university and get a very good certificate,” she says. “That makes me feel that I need to empower more people if I can…There are people who already helped us…We have to be the people who will create the new generation.”